Four teams compete to find the most site-expressive North American pinot noir
Pinot noir didn’t mean much to American wine drinkers until the early 2000s. Some, perhaps, knew it as the grape responsible for red Burgundy. Others might have been familiar with the pinot noirs from Hanzell, Calera, Au Bon Climat, Eyrie and Williams Selyem—some of the grape’s early American standard-bearers. But it wasn’t until the past decade that interest in pinot noir really exploded, driving a feverish planting boom. Now, there’s a lot being grown on our shores, some of it pretty great.
This year, twelve sommeliers joined in the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt. Each team of three chose a region, visiting fields and cellars to find pinot noirs with unmistakable terroir character.
John Szabo, MS, Brad Royale and Véronique Rivest—all Canadians (pictured with SommScavenge Project Manager Keiko Takano)—returned to the competition this year, after their knockout collection of long-lived Hunter Valley semillon nearly came out on top in 2016. Szabo had just finished a book on volcanic wines and was keen to travel to Oregon’s Willamette Valley; his team turned its attention to the region’s volcanic, sedimentary and wind-blown soils and their influence on the local pinot noir.
Six Essential Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs
Hawks View 2014 Chehalem Mountains Pinot Noir
This comes from a type of loess soil called Laurelwood, explains Rivest. “Wind-blown, very light soils give that very silky, elegant tannin—they’re some of the softest, most elegant wines in the valley.”
Shea Wine Cellars 2014 Yamhill-Carlton Estate Pinot Noir
Shea’s sedimentary Willakenzie soils are very free-draining. “The vines are under a lot of stress,” says Rivest. “That’s where you have the thicker skins, so the most muscular, the most tannic [wines] of the lot.”
Kelley Fox 2014 McMinnville Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir
Momtazi Vineyard sits on 50-million-year-old soils created by volcanic subduction, explains Royale. Those old, weathered soils and the vineyard’s mature vines, plus extensive use of whole-bunch fermentation, he finds, create a palpable tension in the wine: a fresh, wild aroma and bright acidity.
Westrey 2014 Dundee Hills Cuvée 22 Pinot Noir
Unlike Momtazi’s ancient soils, Royale argues that red Jory volcanic clay—“only” 17 million years old and nutrient-rich—gives this old-vine Dundee Hills wine a completely different texture: “We’re going to see this broad, rich, fat, luscious palate. Great contrast there.”
Lumos 2014 Eola–Amity Hills Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir
Szabo points out that the Lumos wine is a product of volcanic Nekia soil. The shallow, rocky soil and the cooling effect of winds coming through the Van Duzer Corridor, he says, result in a pinot noir that’s tense and tart, with tightly wound tannins. He considers Temperance Hill “one of the great vineyards of the valley.”
Cristom 2014 Eola–Amity Hills Jessie Vineyard Pinot Noir
Jessie’s soils are more mixed than Temperance Hill’s: Nekia, plus four other basalt-derived soils. The site is also more sheltered from the wind. The result, Szabo says, is a wine that’s “a little richer, darker, meatier but also extremely spicy.”
This story was featured in W&S April 2017.